What Is a Straw Man Argument? Definition and Examples

From The Grammarly Blog:

Imagine arguing with a scarecrow. You can make any argument you want and the scarecrow won’t argue back. In fact, you can do more than make any argument you want . . . you can position the scarecrow’s argument any way you want, tailoring it into the perfect position for you to argue against.

When you make a straw man argument, you’re essentially arguing against an imaginary scarecrow. It’s an easy way to make your argument sound infallible—and that’s what makes it a logical fallacy. 

What is a straw man argument?

A straw man argument, sometimes called a straw person argument or spelled strawman argument, is the logical fallacy of distorting an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then arguing against that extreme version. In creating a straw man argument, the arguer strips the opposing point of view of any nuance and often misrepresents it in a negative light. 

The straw man fallacy is an informal fallacy, which means that the flaw lies with the arguer’s method of arguing rather than the flaws of the argument itself. The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it. By doing this, the straw man fallacy is a fallacy of relevance, because with it the arguer doesn’t engage with the relevant components of their opposer’s position. 

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History of the straw man fallacy

One of the earliest references to the straw man argument dates to Martin Luther. In his 1520 book On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he claimed that one of the church’s criticisms of him was that he argued against serving the Eucharist according to one serving practice despite his never actually making that argument. He described this criticism as “they assert the very things they assail, or they set up a man of straw whom they may attack.” 

Later recognition of the straw man fallacy as a distinct logical fallacy dates to the twentieth century. Generally, scholars agree that the term originated with the idea of setting up a simplistic imagined opponent that’s easy to knock down, like a scarecrow or a military training dummy. 

How does a straw man argument work?

A straw man argument is constructed by presenting an opposing position as a warped, extreme version of itself. There are a few different ways an individual might turn a reasonable argument into a straw man:

  • Oversimplifying it: An arguer might regurgitate a complex or layered issue as a simple, black-and-white one.
  • Focusing on just one part of the opposing argument: By doing this, the arguer ignores the various factors at play and, similar to oversimplifying the opposing argument, presents a tiny sliver of it as if that sliver were the whole thing.
  • Taking it out of context: For example, an individual campaigning for better pedestrian safety measures might say, “cars are dangerous,” and their opponent could turn this into a straw man by claiming the campaigner thinks cars should be banned.
  • Presenting a fringe or extreme version of an opposing argument as the mainstream version of it: For example, one might create a straw man by claiming that all vegans are opposed to all forms of animal captivity, including pet ownership.

Straw man arguments are used in a few different ways. In a live debate, one might be used in an attempt to back the opposing debater into a corner and force them to defend an extreme or unpopular take on their position. In a piece of writing, a straw man argument makes it easy for the writer to make their position look rational and appealing. By doing this, though, the writer is giving readers a biased look at the issue they’re discussing. When readers aren’t familiar with the topic, this can give them the wrong idea and prevent them from developing well-reasoned opinions on it. And when readers are familiar with the topic, it can make the writer look foolish and cause readers to take their position less seriously. 

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

3 thoughts on “What Is a Straw Man Argument? Definition and Examples”

  1. I don’t think writers should be listening to a bot about logic – or anything not directly related to how many times you have used ‘that’ in a scene or article.

    Topics such as logical fallacies – and accusing others of making them – belong in educational situations and journalism classes and should be something the writer is familiar with before writing.

    It is a vast overreach for a piece of software to attempt anything beyond looking up cliches in a cliche database the software designers have compiled for the program.

    Another reason I won’t go near Grammarly – I don’t have the time or patience to fight AI on MY turf.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if AutoCrit, my editing program and lifetime subscription, has some similar stuff added to it, but I’ve already learned how to use that to edit the way I want to (I use it mostly for a counting program to monitor my habit of using the same words repeatedly with different meanings – a side effect of a damaged brain), and other peculiarities of digital writing and editing such as leaving something like ‘the the’ in a file because there’s a line break or word-wrap between them.

    I don’t need or want software auditioning for a position as my ‘Digital Assistant.’ I have enough problems already.

    • Autocrit definitely has an AI feature. I discovered it when I noticed a new “button” (it’s called “Inspiration”) on the interface and I asked, “What does this thing do?”

      Basically, it reads up to whatever paragraph you have highlighted, then gives three suggestions for what could happen next, plotwise. I was not impressed; the suggestions were cliched and wide of the mark of what I actually wrote / planned for the story.

      I guess it could be used currently to check if you’ve stretched your imagination muscles enough. But I already habitually sift and measure and percolate ideas in my head; I don’t really want to outsource this task to a machine. Shoot, troubleshooting story ideas and elements is half the fun! And if I’m going to run ideas past someone, I prefer the human to be creative / insightful / interesting. An AI just can’t compete.

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